It’s Okay to Leave

Megillat Ruth is named for the heroine Ruth, who clung to Naomi in what the tradition has perceived as an act of kindness. She represents the role model of loyalty to Judaism, even when that requires sacrifice. Orpah, the daughter-in-law who obeyed Naomi and returned to her family, became over the course of the generations, a contrasting model of betrayal, of ingratitude, of moral baseness.

The rabbis in the traditional Midrash, portray Orpah as the most morally degraded figure, the ultimate gentile woman:

Midrash Ruth Rabbah (Vilna edition) § 2

Rabbi Yitzchak said: All that night that Orpah took leave of her mother-in-law, the nakedness of one hundred gentile men commingled in her, and thus is written  As he (David)  spoke with them, lo there was a man…from the ranks (ma’arkhot) of the Philistines (1 Samuel 17: 23), the written text has ‘caves’ (me’arot), from the hundred gentile foreskins that intermingled (nit’aru) in her all night. Rabbi Tanhuma said: even a dog too, as is written and the Philistine said to David, a dog am I? (Ibid. 43)

Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) long regarded as the ‘National Poet’ took this image of Orpah one step further.  In 1933 Bialik wrote a new scroll named “Megillat Orpah”  where on the basis of the traditional identification of Orpah as the mother of Goliath, he describes the parallel fates of the “sisters” Ruth and Orpah, who made opposite decisions at the crucial moment and became the mothers of opposing nations that are in an eternal war against each other.

 Orpah and Ruth the Moabite were sisters, daughters of the same father, of Eglon the King of Moav, and both beautiful young women and pleasing to the eye, daughters of valley and the plains. And Orpah was wanton, rebellious and bold since ever, a flighty young camel (Jeremiah 2:23).  And Ruth was as simple, humble, and fearful as a gazelle of the field.


Two descendants of the Moabite sisters, a giant Philistine and a young Hebrew man, stood off in a valley against one another and a deathly loathing, loathing of a people and its god for a people and its god, smoldered in their eyes.

In my years of Torah study I felt stronger and stronger frustration towards the use the Rabbis made of Orpah’s image, since the Orpah that I met in the Bible was a decent young woman, traumatized after losing her husband, her brother-in-law and her father-in-law, who followed the order, the demand of her beloved mother-in-law, and left to go back home, to begin a new, normal, decent life.

I felt resistance to the delegitimizing of her persona and her choice of action that the tradition had developed and deepened. And finally a few years ago, I wrote a literary piece, what I imagine a letter from her might have been, one that throws light on the step she took, and portrays her as a role model for other people who, for different reasons, may identify with her. I wanted to present her and her values as a legitimate option, the way I feel the Bible does. Because the step that Ruth took, is lifnim mishurat hadin, beyond the letter of the law. That is the reason why we call it chesed. Wonderful as chesed is, and inspiring and guiding us as it is, some people, at certain times, simply cannot do it, and the efforts they make to return to normalcy, are legitimate and worth of praise.

Orpah’s letter to her parents – found by her granddaughter, Chayah, after her death – by Tamar Biala

‘Orpah’ you called me, your baby daughter, as soon as I first opened my eyes, looking curiously at the world. ‘Orpah’ you explained, when I cried, with eyes flooded with pain, so you would learn from our experience, not to turn back lifnot ‘oref. Never, you would insist, never turn back, never think on ‘what if’ and don’t regret. Whoever turns around, hesitates, and keeps contemplating his past, becomes a pillar of salt, you would warn me.  Just keep moving forward, with head held high, open to the future! Always start over, lend a hand, believe!

And so I did after you all died from the plague that attacked me too, from which I recovered, by myself, alone.

Naomi, the stranger from Bethlehem, chose me.  She saw my loneliness, my strengths, and instantly was drawn to me.  And I – to her – to her big hug, her kind eyes, to the melodies that were so pleasing na’amu to my love-seeking heart.

I loved Naomi, who was a mother to me, I loved her, I loved her family and the little sister I merited all of a sudden, in the middle of life, Ruth, warm and embracing.

And then fate struck at me, again, at all of us, Machlon and Chilyon slipped right from our hands, but I lifted Ruth’s chin and made her rise from their graves and sit with us to receive the comforters.

On the way to Yehudah, to her home in Bethlehem, still stunned in our pain, hanging one on another, she pushed us away, our adoptive mother. Ruth and I refused, we didn’t want to separate from her, from her too?! But when she insisted, and made clear that by her side we’d have no life, I remembered what you commanded me, and I decided to fulfill her request, your request, the request of my young and believing heart. Ruth and I will appear all of a sudden in our town, I imagined, people will wonder, have pity, be suspicious, but we will keep faith with each other, because we will always be sisters, just as we’d promised in the past, endless times.

When I turned and started to go, I felt right away that something wasn’t right. I heard footsteps walking away, but not just those of Naomi. Two sets of footsteps I heard, soft, getting farther away, and I didn’t understand what was happening.  I wanted to turn around, to cry out to Ruth, call out, clarify, understand, but your voice, warning, and sharp blew on my neck nashaf be’orpi and pushed me forward, forward, with painful force: ‘never turn back, never think on ‘what if’ and don’t regret. Whoever turns around, hesitates, and keeps contemplating his past, becomes a pillar of salt.  Just keep moving forward, with head held high, open to the future! Always start over, lend a hand, believe!’ And I, as my tears fell and vanished into the hot sand on the way to Moav, kept moving forward, forward, alone. And I was a good girl.

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